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A breath of fresh air

We may think it’s a comfort, but smoking is a form of self-medication that can lead to anxiety and even depression, explains David Servan-Schreiber. Why not find solace in other things?

by Psychologies

More than one in three smokers would like to stop. Many manage to give up, but it isn’t easy. The chemical additives mixed in with the nicotine are designed to make smokers dependent, even more so than with cocaine. US tobacco manufacturers were forced to admit this during the landmark court case they lost 12 years ago.

But that’s not the only reason why giving up is so difficult. For a long time psychoanalysts have described the feeling of ‘oral gratification’ that cigarettes give.

Nowadays, therapists talk more of ‘comfort seeking’. In fact, we all need ways to calm our day-to-day tensions and stresses. As babies, we had access to the breast or the teat of the bottle. As children, we were geared to chocolates and sweets; as adolescents, alcohol and cigarettes — all marketed to us relentlessly as a primary source of pleasure. The more we have suffered during our lives, the more we feel tensions that make us seek out comfort in immediate physical pleasures.

So we eat food we don’t need, we drink alcohol to forget what we’re feeling, and we smoke. More than a third of smokers suffer from symptoms of depression. The more educated they are, the stronger the link. It’s as if having a cigarette is a way of prescribing your own medicine.

However, even if inhaling provides a few minutes of immediate pleasure, it’s a  poor antidepressant. It even appears that nicotine may cause serious anxiety problems: smokers are three to four times more likely to be subject to anxiety attacks. Anxiety that lessens within a week of giving up tobacco.

The lesson is clear: those who wish to give up smoking must first treat their ‘depression’ and learn to find comfort in other ways than with cigarettes.

It is, of course, important to choose the right weaning method (the best, according to studies, being cognitive behavioural therapy combined with a medication to reduce physical craving, or, for some people, with acupuncture).

You also need to allow yourself little pleasures throughout the day, whenever you feel the need to smoke: breathe in and out twice slowly and deeply, eat a piece of fruit, drink a glass of water, step outside for a bit, water a plant, call a friend, listen to music. You can also treat yourself to something as a reward. Or just feel good about the notion that nobody will be looking at you and saying: ‘Ha, look at her smoking! She must be feeling down.’